Russian military commanders have launched a concerted campaign against negotiations to end the war in Chechnya, or any other action they believe might tie their hands in reclaiming the breakaway region.
Hardly a day goes by without a commander warning leaders in Moscow not to end the war before all of Chechnya is pacified. Today, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and armed forces chief of staff Anatoly Kvashnin issued an unusual denial of reports of a government-military conflict. They signed a statement calling the stories "lies" meant to "cause a split in the state and military leadership."
The declaration followed newspaper reports that Kvashnin threatened to resign over government plans to open talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Military rejection of talks puts the armed forces in opposition to calls by Washington and the West for a negotiated settlement. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said he wants talks, but says there is no authority in Chechnya with the power to satisfy Russia's demands. At a minimum, Moscow wants the Chechens to hand over "terrorists" Russia accuses of launching attacks on Russian territory.
Despite shows of civilian-military unity by Sergeyev and Kvashnin, army fears that the offensive might be halted are acute. On Friday, just a day after Sergeyev gave public assurances that nobody was going to stop the offensive, Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, the western front commander, warned that if politicians aborted the campaign, officers would resign en masse.
On one level, the Russian armed forces are simply looking for redemption, Russian observers say. Russian troops withdrew in disgrace from Chechnya in 1996, following a two-year war in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed.
Kvashnin, the North Caucasus commander during the previous war, Gen. Nikolai Kantsaev, the current North Caucasus chief, Shamanov and other commanders, who are veterans of the debacle, blame skittish politicians for not letting them do their job.
"It was a great humiliation for the military, which was supposed to be the invincible sword of the Cold War, to be beaten by gangs they described as 'bandits,' " said Sergei Rogov, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada. "They want to wash away that stain."
"The officers feel they were burned in the first war by conflicting orders and political incompetence. Now they are letting everyone know what they want to do and telling them not to interfere," said Dmitri Trenin, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here.
The military's outspoken attitude on Chechnya prompted some commentators to wonder exactly who is in charge--President Boris Yeltsin, the ailing commander-in-chief; Putin, whose aspirations to succeed Yeltsin in next year's presidential elections appear to rest on the outcome in Chechnya; or the military brass. The newspaper Izvestia questioned whether the military's drive for a free hand might end up with interference in civilian affairs.
Izvestia noted that the Russian military usurped normally civilian functions of border control in Ingushetia, the Russian region that is the main destination for Chechen refugees. Ingush President Ruslan Aushev complained of unspecified military operations taking place without his authorization.
In Chechnya today, Russia continued its bombardment with artillery and rockets. For the first time, officials said that the army used surface-to-surface Tochka ballistic missiles against Grozny, the capital. Four landed in southwestern suburbs where "2,000 militants and their military hardware" were concentrated, according to a report from the official Russian Tass news agency.
Reports described bombings in central Grozny and the southwest outskirts. Residential buildings were hit, according to the Associated Press.
Chechens say tactical missiles were used to hit a market in central Grozny last month, killing scores of civilians.